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The Display Battle Heats Up

Plasma and LCD continue their fight for the flat-panel display market, and it's getting brutal.

In contrast, LCD technology has wrestled with all of these parameters, using tricks like pulsed back-lights to reduce motion blurring, switching to color-corrected fluorescent lamps and light-emitting diodes for improved color, and using next-generation compensating films to drop black levels and expand viewing angles.

There's evidence that LCD manufacturers are getting closer on all counts. Coupled with advantages in lower power consumption (about 20 to 25 percent on average over same-size plasma) and weight (about 20 percent lighter in same-size screens), LCD could indeed turn out to be a winner in what has long been thought to be a two-technology category.

Another thing that complicates the picture for plasma is the presence of Taiwanese giants CMO and AUO, which are both major players in the LCD industry. The continued downward spiral of prices has forced some of the major Japanese brands to set up deals with these and other Chinese manufacturers to get LCD glass at lower prices — a “plan B” option that most plasma manufacturers don't have.

Among those, LG Electronics held the top spot on Q3 2006 with a 32.5 percent PDP market share, according to Austin, TX-based display market research firm DisplaySearch. Matsushita (Panasonic) followed with 30.4 percent, and Samsung SDI came in third with 23.2 percent. These three companies accounted for 86 percent of all plasma shipments in that quarter, leaving table scraps for Hitachi (8.9 percent share) and Pioneer (4.8 percent).

But LG and Samsung are also major players in LCD, along with Sharp, CMO, and AUO. As such, LG and Samsung can simply shut down PDP lines if they eventually determine that LCD is the best way to go. (Even so, Sharp, which just opened a Gen 8 LCD fab in Japan, has recently had to make deals to buy smaller LCD glass from lower-cost Taiwanese manufacturers.)

Panasonic isn't a major player in LCD, nor is Hitachi. And Pioneer has no LCD manufacturing capacity, nor any LCD products in its line. All three companies are working frantically to reduce wholesale plasma prices while maintaining high volumes of production and yields, all in the face of the LCD juggernaut.

For many professional applications, the battle may already be over. Early digital signage installations made extensive use of plasma displays because that's all you could buy. Today, many of those installations have switched or are switching over to LCD as prices drop and screens increase in size.

The main reason is the higher brightness of LCD monitors, but the absence of glare from ambient light is another plus. Plasma monitors, like CRT monitors, do have problems with glare under high ambient lighting. Anti-glare glass mitigates the problem considerably, but also cuts down on brightness levels.

Other issues with motion blurring and color accuracy in LCD displays may not be as big of a problem with digital signage, where many of the applications involve relatively static displays of images, numbers, and text. As a result, the retail, transportation, public safety, command & control, process control, and hospitality sectors are largely specifying and installing LCD monitors these days.

So when does the final bell ring? How many more rounds will this fight go on?

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